Log: From the magic of Klemtu to the enchantment of Sitka

Tuesday 12 June 2018  Klemtu 52º35.6’ºN  128º31’W

We break the usual long passage north with a stop in Klemtu, where we land at the fuel dock and are greeted by a smiling Alan at the fuel dock.  The folks at Shearwater has advised against filling up with their diesel until the huge shipment piped off a barge had settled in their tanks.  Alan is welcoming an accommodating.  When we request permission to drop anchor in Klemtu’s small bay, Alan says, “You could just pull back onto that extension of the fuel dock.”  Oh good. A leg-stretch in this interesting First Nation village without having to inflate the dinghy.  When I go up to the office on the dock to pay, Alan asks if I’ve visited  Klemtu’s Big House. I haven’t.  He has me copy down the phone number of Shane Robinson, who can guide me.

And that is a story still to be written.

Wednesday 13 June 2018 Lowe Inlet  53º33.4”N 129º34’W

Daybreak gilds the foothills along Grenville Channel as we exit Lowe Inlet.

We leave Klemtu at 6am and twelve and a half hours later drop anchor in Lowe Inlet. This can be a challenge but we nail it, our anchor grabbing the mud on a single narrow goldilocks band between shoal and depths. 

Thursday 14 June 2018  Kumealon Inlet  53º52’N 129º58’W

The rising tide in Lowe Inlet entitles us to a mid morning start and a strong favorable current north on Grenville Channel.  I sit on deck leaning back on the mast where I can look out for logs and signal to Jack, who zigs and zags around them. Twice a month, when the moon is full or new, spring tides float the drift from shore into our path.   

Into Kumealon Inlet tonight,  23 vertical feel of water will flow in and out – six hours to arrive and six to depart. Again we must lay down the hook in the sweet spot, which is just off a rock wall where you can see the rise and fall with your own eyes. We succeed.

Friday 15 June 2018 Cow Bay, Prince Rupert 54º19’N 130º19’W   

The new Cow Bay Marina has space. Owner Robin Beattie and his employee Noora are at the docks to take our lines.  Currents are strong here.  We tie up in 150 feet of water and watch shore rise 25 feet with the falling tide. 

In the fog that comes the next morning we can’t see shore. It will not be fun transiting the circuitous Venn Passage on a low spring tide in such conditions.  In the end, the lack of visibility on the morning of our rest day enhances our joy when the next morning dawns clear.

Sunday 17 June  Foggy Bay  54º56.9’N 130º56.4’W

Above 54º40’ !   Alaska at last.  Jack has called ahead to US Customs and got us permission to spend the night here along with two other slow sailboats.  

S/V Caro Babbo in Foggy Bay, where US Customs officials have given phone permission for us to overnight between 54º40’N and Ketchikan.

Monday 18 June 2018  Ketchikan  55º20’N 131º38.4’W

As we motor up Revillagigedo Channel we see our first giant cruise ship of the trip, then second, third, four, and fifth towering over the waterfront.  Without a suitable dock the largest cruise ship (in the whole world it seems) – the Norwegian Bliss – is anchored out and lightering in its passengers to shore.  Today this diminutive town of 13,000 people has nearly 13,000 visitors!  

We duck behind the first of these behemoths expecting calm in Thomas Basin. There is none. Strong, noisy williwaws rush down the peaks.  As we dock I manage to get the midline on a cleat but nothing else. Aurora fishtails into the neighboring boat whose occupants come out to help.  Man rushes to stern, woman grabs a bow line. It takes us ten minutes of struggle to inch the boat in an get it tied up.

Ketchikan’s hill top library has comfy chairs and snowfield views but 80º is still hot.

Ketchikan is 80º. To escape the heat and check my mail I take the city bus up to Ketchikan’s new library.  The ride is pleasant, the chair comfy, the view spectacular, but Alaska libraries aren’t air conditioned.  What was I thinking?

When the sun sinks and the big ships are gone, and the fishing boats return, and thing get convivial on the docks.  Sage, who organized our rescue is a shipwright who lives aboard with his family.  He gives us his card, which we tape to the nav station. It’s hard to find a ready shipwright in Alaska in the summer; Across the way from them on S/V Lionheart are Rachel and Jeff with their baby, toddler and teenager.  They are moving from Prince of Wales, where Rachel taught all of Thorne Bay’s third, fourth and fifth graders, to the Olympic Penninsula. John and Jennifer of Cara Babbo visit, bearing fresh corn muffins: turns out they’ve just moved to Port Townsend, where it will be good to have them.  Next visit is crew of Teas for Two – the third Foggy Bay boat – Ian from Victoria and Helen from the northern shores of the UK.  

Wednesday 20 June 2018  Thorne Bay  55º40.9’N 132º31.4’W

Whew!  We did it.  Got into Thorne Bay. Jack on Navionics on iPad standing next to me at helm.   Straight line zig zag. My knuckles white.  Jack’s voice calm. “One or two more degrees to the right.”   “Now hard turn to left and straighten out at about 275º.”

Battery lantern lights nav station writing desk while I enjoy the long slow late night sunset.

We’re the only boat on the guest dock.  We tie up right in front of Toccata, which Sheryl and Greg spent 27 years building in Port Townsend.  New Harbormaster, Ron, seems to know everything.  Says Sheryl is doing the laundry and Greg is in crafting something in his shop on shore. Somehow we miss them but liveaboards Libby and Jim pay a visit.  Once the largest logging camp in the world, Thorne Bay is a quiet community of 400 souls.  Libby says 38 of them are named “Jim” and that the second most popular name is Sean/Shawn. Shows some demographic diversity, I say.

Thorne Bay has excellent, empty docks and a liquor store but no bar. Which makes it somewhat unAlaskan. Rachel the teacher and future home schooler suspects her family was “too hippy” for the place.

Thursday 21 June 2018  Exchange Island  56º12’N 133.04’W

Solstice sun breaks, calming wind in Exchange Island anchorage. We celebrate with drinks on deck.

Summer Solstice.  A late afternoon west wind is strong enough to spins Aurora opposite the direction the incoming tide has pushed her. I let out 50 more feet of chain I pay attention to our GPS coordinates lest we drag.  We don’t.

As the wind subsides and sun sinks, we enjoy drinks on deck. An enormous salmon jumps and splashes as a great blue heron, clearly outmatched, looks on in wonder.

Friday 22 June 2018 South entry to Rocky Pass 56º35’N 133º41’W

Lovely morning passage north behind the Kashevarof Island and into the vast Sumner Strait. Two hulking cruise ships steam south to disgorge thousands on the Ketchikan waterfront when the shops open.  An orange blaze appears over the horizon off Pt. Baker. Not a ship on fire but a commercial trawler with its fishing lights on.  A large work platform of a boat disappears down Prince of Wales’ west coast.  Nothing smaller anywhere around.

We head for Keku Strait, which nothing larger than Aurora can transit.  We’ve done it twice before. Cognizance of how tidal level and direction affect passage are essential, especially for the middle 20 miles sections known as Rocky Pass.  

So we get the Douglasses’ Exploring Southeast Alaska: Dixon Entrance to Skagway: Details of Every Harbor and Cove.  We rail against the outdated 2007 second edition, designed either to terrify or laud the courage of the authors: “Stories abound of good skippers who grounded or ruined their boats in Rocky Pass.  Part of the problem is crappy editing by Fine Edge publications. They’ve left in pages of dramatic stuff written long before placement of aids to nav and dredging of a section near Summit Island in the early 00’s.  Our aging chart includes 2007 datum and Jack updated our Navionics digital chart plotter just before the trip. Despite some magnetic disturbance at the north end of Rocky Pass, we should make it.

Saturday 23 June 2018   Kake  56º56.8’N 133º53.7’W  

Make that Peace of Kake.  Kake is a Tlingit village at the end of Keku Strait where we are relishing modest triumphs. Our anchor held in the good mud of a vast shallow expanse of wind beaten water as we slept soundly.  And when the tide was right mid morning we worked in tight collaboration to transit Rocky Pass.

Make that Peace of Kake

Here on the good docks of this surprisingly empty harbor, we have been sandwiched by two other recreational sailboats.  On starboard is Williwaw, owned by the surviving half of a cruising couple whose family members are delivering it to Anacortes where it will be sold.  On port are three generations of Austrians on their third circumnavigation.  “Via Panama?” I ask.  “No, the Northwest Passage.”   Wow. I tell them about Dogbark! and they mention seeing them on AIS earlier this week.  

Sunday 24 June 2018  Baranof Warm Springs  57º05’N 134º50’W   

Early morning fog persists all the way across Frederick Sound and up Chatham Strait.  As we round the tip of Admiralty Island, a Stellar sealion surprises us with a huge splash off our port beam and explodes above the surface next to the boat on port side, an enormous salmon in his mouth.  White; looks like a polar bear.  Plays with his food. Throws it up in the air and snatches back in his jaws.  

It’s late morning when we get close enough to the dock to see there are 45 free feet waiting for us.  Everyone seems to sleeping.  Finally the sun breaks over the snowy 4,000 foot peaks above us.  Is there any corner of the good earth more beautiful than Baranof Warm Springs?

The docks come alive.  We meet Sharon and John, who live aboard Gipsy Lady in Point Hudson.  Stu in on Ripple a 26 foot gaff rigged boat built by the Northwest School for  Wooden Boats.  He’s buddy boating with Terry from Powell River, who has a tiny trimiran and helps me tighten the shroud we stretched when we bent the whisker pole and free the main halyard stuck in the mast.  

The waterfall roars.  We languish in one of the tubs in the bathhouse.  When the seiners arrive, four big ones raft to the smallest, which hangs off the end of the dock. The Sitka Harbormaster under whose authority this small dock now falls would not approve. This is a party. Dogs and children spill out of the boats.  Good to see beloved traditions endure.

Seiners raft five deep at Baranof Warm Springs. Kids and dogs tumble off, cooks get busy, beer cans whisper open. A real party.

Monday 25 June  2018 Schulze Cove 57º23.5’N 135º35.8’W 

A long day starts with spectacular views as we make our early morning exit from Baranof Warm Springs.

Blinding sun-infused fog extends to the south as we head north,
The Ketchikan-bound ferry makes its way down Chatham Strait.

 

Hot sun burns away the fog so we can enjoy Baranof Island’s spectacular peaks.

We decide to push on in hopes of getting to the Sitka side of Sergius Narrows. In our 10th hour underway, we pull off into Deep Cove to figure out our low slack transit of the Narrows.  We try to ignore the dread the Douglasses inspire in Cruising Southeast Alaska so turn to the usually sensible How to Cruise to Alaska without Rocking the Boat Too Much. Here’s what Walt Woodward writes:

Without a current guide, Walt Woodward’s 1989 How to Cruise to Alaska works. And it agrees with the paper and electronic charts.

Make no mistake about it, Sergius Narrows should be navigated for the first time by an inexperienced skipper only at high water slack; positively and without exception at high water slack. ….Let’s see if I can command your respect of Sergius. In the first place, it is one of only four passes listed in the Pacific Coast Tidal Current Tables for special statistical  treatment: the others are Deception Pass, Seymour Narrows, and Isanotski Strait.  All of them are awesome in the sudden and sustained way that maximum currents surge through them.  The critical portion of Sergius is just 450 feet long, the length of the dredged channel that is 24 feet deep and  only 300 feet wide. On one side of the channel is the rock wall of Sergius Point; the other, marked by a nun buoys, includes covered rock and a submerged rock. Through this aperture race mighty and variable-direction currents of almost six knots on the flood and 5.5 on the ebb. At slack water, however, the thing can be a mill pond for about ten minutes, plenty of time to get through. The only problem then would be other ships waiting for the same slack period.  An Alaska state ferry can fill most of the channel. 

Hmm. We’ve done Sergius twice before but can’t remember if it was high or low slack. No other boats around, at least not westbound. All our tide tables agree that low slack water is at 4:05 pm. And we’re not really inexperienced skippers.

So we go for it.  Two powerful eastbound local boats push against the current to transit a couple of minutes early, leaving Serguis for us alone. We go in a minute before dead low slack and emerge a minute after it.  Absolutely smooth.  Around the corner we find the Alaska State buoy in Schulze Cove waiting for us.

Tuesday 26 June 2018  Sitka  57º03’N 135º21’W   

An iconic SE Alaska troller on Salisbury Sound.

Sublime passage through the swells of Salisbury Sound. The rain stops and the sun breaks through on the early morning trollers. 

In Neva Strait we pass a couple of Sitka black-tailed deer, a small subspecies of mule deer that are a stable of the Alaskan diet. 

Sitka deer on the shore of Neva Strait.

In a narrow passage between Sitka’s first small islands, we pass Dogbark! and chat with Graeme and crew until they disappear into Olga Strait.  They’ll head out across the Gulf of Alaska toward Dutch Harbor and continue north along the Bering Sea coast to Nome, where Janna, Talia and Savia will meet them.  We’re getting their dispatches online.

Dogbark! disappears into Olga Passage enroute to the legendary NW Passage.
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Wearable Percussion

Shore leave in Prince Rupert provides the chance to visit the extraordinary Museum of Northern B.C.  While all the collections are excellent, I love the First Nations’ regalia.  This time what catches my eye are the garments with audible accoutrements.  With wearable percussion, dancers interact with and enhance the beats of the drums.

Apron with metal thimbles.
Apron fringes with puffin beaks.
Garment fringed with pieces of metal and Chinese coins.
Leather dance apron with deer hooves.
Chilkst shawl with puffin beaks.
This bear claw crown would have been worn by the shaman.
Carved goat horns combine in this crown.
Fox skin tunic with with red wool felt and fringes with deer hooves.

When we get to Sitka, I head for the Sheldon Jackson Museum in search of wearable percussion.  One of two Alaska State museums, this holds the collection of Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian educator who founded a school for Native youth and collected the items in last decade of the nineteenth century.

But here I don’t find a single example of wearable percussion!  I suppose  people of Jackson’s ilk were not keen on the Potlatch.  Instead, this place is a temple of material culture and human ingenuity. Every drawer in the small octagonal museum holds intriguing objects.

A shaman’s rattle hang in a case near the banks of drawers with other collections.
After European contact and the availability of wire. Tlingit artisans tried their hand at stringed instruments.
When hunter scratches on the ice with tool, the sound resembles that of seals. Feeling safe, the seal approaches the hunter.
Wouldn’t a necklace of fox teeth or of crab mandibles make a pleasant sound?
Or how about a Yup’ik necklace of ground squirrel mandibles? These necklaces were worn by both men and women.
I’m sure some vocal sound or drumming accompanied use of these women’s healing belts.  Inupiaq belt features porcupine quills, one from the Bering Sea caribou teeth.
Snow goggles save Inupiaq hunters from going blind and certainly make a fashion statement.

Sea Otters: Devastatingly adorable

Sea otters are adorable!

Is there any other creature on earth for which that adjective is more apt? Their faces are adorable. Their mannerisms are adorable. And then there is the mutuality of the adoration. When you glide past sea otters they invariably face you, their big eyes looking up at you adoringly. They paddle up on their backs then relax, their long feet sticking up humanlike and just stare, pleasantly. Holding their meal on their bellies with one front paw, they appear to wave with the other. Or they engage more enthusiastically, treading water furiously until they are head, shoulders and mid section above the surface straining to look into your boat. Adoring. Adorable.

SeaOtter4
Sea Otters pay attention to passersby.

Without the blubber that protects other marine mammals, sea otters have to eat all the time. They  never leave the water, spending long hours foraging about a quarter of their weight daily. They relish a highly varied diet that includes Dungeness crabs, sea urchins and sea cucumbers.

 

The otters’ preferred foods are among the cash harvests pf the Prince of Wales fishing industry. The produce flies fresh on ice to hungry mouths in China and Japan. Perhaps we should think of it as the Silk Route of artisanal commercial fishing. Sea otters seem to be taking their revenge. They were exterminated in the fur trade of an earlier Northwest economic boom that was followed by an absolute  bust.

SeaOtter5
What other marine mammal treads water to emerge waist level from the surface?

Luxurious fur with 125,000 hairs per square centimeter also helps sea otters manage without blubber. I’ve twice felt an otter’s pelt. First at the museum in Wrangell, where we stroked skins of beaver, fox, mink, ermine, and otter to understand why the species disappeared in the fur trade. The other time was at the old Icy Bay Cannery in Hoonah, an interpretive center run by the Native Corporation. There was one simple square pillow in the shop. $300. I’ve since thought of this an the ultimate luxury gift and one that might doom the otter anew if experienced too widely by too many people.

 

Later in the Tlingit village Klawock on the west coast of Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island, I ask if anyone is harvesting otters. I learn about a man – Native people can get harvest rights – who lives in the blue house on stilts at the head of the dock. I look for him to no avail. A week later at Cowpuccino’s in Prince Rupert I hear two fishermen commiserating over the demise of their livelihoods. “Nothing to do. People love the otters.”

SeaOtter3
Excuse this anthropomorphic slant, but don’t they act like humans?

I consult Marine Mammals of British Columbia by John K. B. Ford that is always at hand on the boat, at home or when I’m docenting at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. Sea otters, a single species, is in the Mustelide family along with the weasels but the only one considered a marine mammal because they rarely if ever leave the water.

Canada has kept a pretty good population counts. Between 1785 and 1809 55,000 pelts were sold in BC, although a portion of these hunted in Washington, then Oregon Territory, and Alaska. The Sea Otter was commercially extinct by 1850 and apart from a handful of pelts and live sightings, did not reappear until 89 individuals from Alaska were reintroduced along the northern part of the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1967. By 1995, reports Ford, aerial surveys showed a population of 1500, representing a remarkable growth rate of 18 or 19 per cent per year. Today, Sea Otters off this coast are reproducing at 8 percent owing to less abundant food. Unlike marine mammals that store calories in blubber, Sea Otters must keep moving, foraging a quarter of their body weight daily.

SeaOtter2
They are social and hang out in water but don’t haul out on land.

Ford explains that the Sea Otter’s “large hindlimbs are oriented backwards and flattened into flippers for swimming” while its “forelimbs are short with highly dexterous paws.” With the help of a paddle-like tail, it can dive down 50 meters to fetch food from the bottom. “Sea Otters capture prey with their forepaws and can carry it along with rocks or other hard objects – which are used as tools to break open shelled prey – in loose folds of skin under their forearms as they swim,” writes Ford.

 

We glide past in awe as these furry, whiskered, round-headed, sub nosed marine mammals use their chests tables at which to fix and eat their meals. Adorable. At the same time they are altering the dynamics of the food web, decimating the many invertebrate species on which they feed. Once devastated,they are now devastating.
Wednesday 22 June Klawock 55º33.4’N 133º05.9′ W

SeaOtter1
The default view  of a relaxed, momentarily satiated sea otter.  No critters or tools on the abdominal butcher block. Mariners may initially confuse them with floating logs until they see notice the eyes in their direction.

More whales and Sea Otters. Perhaps they leave us tired when we enter the proterws bay at Klawock on a lowish tide and entry to public docks confuses us. So we tie up in an empty space at the Tribal docks next to the cannery. I call on the good ladies inside who are cooking lunch for tribal members and organizing a food bank. They say, no, the boat in the place where you are will be back later today and there should certainly be space at the public harbour.

 

There is indeed. After not getting the Harbour Master on VHF we tie up at an empty space. Nice view of Klawock’s deservedly famous totem park. A fisherman says call Rose and gives me her cell phone. Find this strong little wisp of a woman near on the street. She’s ben Harbour Master for 17 years. Part time no benefits. Her house is across the street. I pay moorage in cash – 11.45 for boats of any size – and thank her for the well designed and maintained restrooms and showers on the ground floor of her office perch with view of skips coming and going.

Log: POW Circumnavigation

Prince of Wales is the largest of the bunch – the third largest in the USA in area, plus a thousand miles of coastline, which are magic to look at even on a map. The true surprise was finding not only wonderful wilderness but also an variety of intriguing small “cities” and Native villages.

Prince of Wales – land of watery wonders and deep culture.

A sign pasted on the inside of our pantry door at home proclaims says “Dream POW-ABC.” It’s the fruit of a collision between my January resolutions and a list of the largest islands in the USA. Did you know that four of the largest are in Southeast Alaska? Prince of Wales, Admiralty, Baranof and Chicago. We’d already done a major part of the shoreline of each one, so why not go back and systematically circumnavigate all of them?

Prince of Wales is the largest of the bunch – the third largest in the USA in area, plus a thousand miles of coastline, which are magic to look at even on a map. With hundreds of small protected coves in which to drop anchor, there would be no need to hurry. All spring we looked forward to our DIY luxury cruise. The true surprise was finding not only wonderful wilderness but also an variety of intriguing small “cities” and villages. Since available books on the area are so out of date we wrote our own Cruisers’ Guide to Prince of Wales Island to document port facilities and other amenities.

Sat 11 June – Kina Cove, Kasaan Bay 55º20’N 131º31’W

Once we flee Ketchikan, we head up Chatham Channel to Kasaan Bay. Kina Cove is the perfect place for a much needed weekend of rest. It’s not the most beautiful spot as there has been recent clear cutting. But no one is there, holding ground is good and we have five bars of AT&T and tether to strong wifi!  I even manage to post the first part of our log.

Mon 13 June – Kasaan 55º32’N 132.23.9’W

This greenhouse with hydroponic and traditional produce can help feed all 65 residents of The Organized Village of Kasaan.
With both hydroponic and traditional produce this beautiful greenhouse helps feed all 65 residents of The Organized Village of Kasaan.

In their decade-old cruising guide the Douglasses say don’t even think about spending the night tied up at Kasaan’s rickety docks. As we glide by, even at a distance, my binocs pick up some rather splendid infrastructure for a village of 65 people. It’s right there on the vast uninhabited shores of Kasaan Bay. As we approach we see the float plane dock, lots of empty slips for boats of all sizes and a hefty float capable of handling a large barge.

Totems stand in old growth forest around the historic 1882 Whalehouse, to be rededicated on September 3, 2016.
The poles in the Kasaan totem park stand in spectacular old growth forest.

We walk up the ramp, along the shore, past the fire hall and a handful of houses. Up the hill are the offices the Organized Village of Kasaan, the health clinic, library and a small modern school that features a climbing wall and a new green house where the villages vegetables are growing in traditional containers and hydroponic tanks. The library seems like the appropriate place to request permission to visit the totem park and get directions to the path. The lure of Kasaan is one of the finest collections of Haida totem poles on coast. “Of course” say the folks in the library, “and place don’t miss visiting the carving shed as well.”

Kassan ege
The turquoise eyeshadow and black mascara are typical of Haida design.

The path through old growth is beautifully maintained and no problem for Jack on his scooter. Just before the totem park, however, the steps onto an otherwise fine log bridge block his progress. I cross and go onto the narrow paths around the poles and take lots of photos. The longhouse, however, is surrounded by orange plastic tape that marks it off limits.

Back down the trail we visit the Carving Shed where Stormy Hamar is carving the top motifs of an enormous yellow cedar log. The drawing he shows us speaks to the sophistication of Haida art (confirmed in the collection of the BC Museum in Victoria.). It represents the fruits of hours of interviews he, in collaboration with master carvers, has carried out with elders. Stormy, who seems barely in his mid thirties, insists he is not a master carver.

KasaanFace
The detail of these poles is so rich it makes you wish you were a bird and could get closer.

Again and again on this trip we meet young, dynamic, smart, focussed Native artists, naturalists and political types for whom deference to elders is the norm. I wish I lived in a society like this.

The orange tape, Stormy explains, is because this Whalehouse, one of the oldest Haida structures on the coast, is being restored. Artisans and carvers from neighboring Tlingit tribes are helping these northernmost – and hence minority Haida – with the work. In fact, everyone is preparing for once in a lifetime ceremony to rededicate the Whalehouse on September 3, 2016. Their kin from Haida Gawaii and the coastal mainland BC from whom they are cut off by the international border will be among the guests of honor.

Stormy Hamar and Jack with the enormous yellow cedar being transformed into Kaman's newest pole.
Stormy Hamar and Jack with the enormous yellow cedar being transformed into Kasaan’s newest pole.

On the walls of the carving shed are hung red cedar strips for basket weaving, small ceremonial paddles made by kids and a splendid small Haida canoe with a delicate design burned into its gunwales. I comment that it is very sad that in recent years there’s been no native canoe at the Port Townsend Wooden Bast Festival.

On the wall of the Carving Shed is an exquisite small canoe by Stormy's son Eric Hamar, who is currently studying wooden boat building in Port Townsend.
On the wall of the Carving Shed is an exquisite small canoe by Stormy’s son Eric Hamar, who is currently studying wooden boat building in Port Townsend.

Stormy smiles proudly and says the canoe is his son’s work. In fact, his son is a student at the Port Townsend School for Wooden Boats. Jack and I perk up in recognition: this spring the Port Townsend Leader profiled a young Haida carver. I have the profile of Eric Hamar on my desk and Kasaan Carving Shed has a computer print out tacked to the wall. Our communities are linked.

Tues 14 June – Thorne Bay 55º40.9’N 132º31.4’W

S/V Aurora near Toccata, built by resident crew Greg and Cheryl and launched in Port Townsend.
S/V Aurora near Toccata, built over 28 years by resident crew Greg and Cheryl and launched in Port Townsend.

A tiny break in the thickly treed shoreline marks the long winding entrance to Thorne Bay. Unable to find the fuel dock we call it a day and tie up at the mostly empty new docks, Greg jumps off the 50 foot sailboat docked nearby to welcome us and help with our lines. He and Cheryl are Thorne Bay liveaboards on Toccata, which says Greg, “We’ve been building for the past 28 years.”

Toccata looks pretty shipshape to us and when we’re invited for drinks the next day, we get the whole story. Yes, Greg and Cheryl launched their dream 28 years ago, not to sail blue waters, but to live in mindful comfort in the coastal wilderness. We look through the photos of the long construction process, every stage of which they managed hands on. The splash day in Port Townsend is celebrated with a part for all the people from the boatyard who helped out with this a small floating house for two people. Exquisite woodwork. Wonderful head with colorfully tiled shower. Hasse sails and rigging by Lisa and Dan.

Gary the guy to know in Thorne Bay. Brings fuel right to the boat.
Gary’s the guy to know in Thorne Bay. Brings fuel right to the boat.

We hear that the fuel dock is best visited on a high tide so we head deeper into the bay the next morning. As we prepare to tie up a float plane arrives with the mail and we’re asked to wait. First plane leave and a second flies in to drop another dribble of cartons from Amazon.com and first class mail on the dock. Then we pull up only to find there’s not a single cleat so we use the short lines the float planes uses. Then we discover the electricity is out and the pump won’t run. Gary, the owner, says, “Never mind, it’s pretty shallow here for you anyway, I’ll just bring your diesel over to the dock later.”

After Gary’s visit to us we stop by his store that sells fishing and hunting gear and licenses. We talk about bears, learn that there are no grizzlies, only black bears on the Island. Last year nine bears were taken, some by locals who hunt them mid season for their meat and some by trophy hunters who take them later in the season, when their meat tastes fishy but their coats are thick.

Thur 16 June – Coffman Cove  56º00.6’N 133º37’W

Coffman Cove's large fleet of small boats serves Alaskan families catching salmon to get them through the winter.
Coffman Cove’s large fleet of small boats serves Alaskan families catching salmon to get them through the winter.

Unlike Thorne Bay, Coffman Cove doesn’t hide. It’s houses string along shore and it’s easy to find the docks.  The Doglass guide is again way out of date on the the condition of the facilities. Docks and floats are new, with steel ramps that let folks drive right up to their boats on the floats. There’s lots of space.
The fishing fleet is small, it seems to be mostly personal use and subsistence fishing. Small fleet. Community seems to serve local folks, although I meet an RVer, an Oregonian from Salem, who comes to fish and consume everything he catches on the spot.

We really need a fisherman on board. Just a little bit too much to manage ourselves what with navigation, sailing, VHF underway and cooking, eating, planning, chart organization, exploring, talking to folks on the docks, journaling, reading, and fixing things when we’re not.

Minus tide reveals  Look!  
Two rocks. I snap photo degrees
To remember you 

Unless you get mixed up with those rocks that mark the start of the lagoon beyond the docks, Coffman Cove is easy to enter and exit.  The islands just to the north are rich with sea life.  Humpbacks dive and blow.  Steller Sea Lions swim around our boat to join a huge group of their kin on a rocky shoal.

Again today!
Three hundred sixty degrees
No other humans!

Sat 18 June – Point Baker 56º21’N 133º37’W

Long enchanted by fisherman-author Joe Upton’s accounts of life at Point Baker in Alaska Blues, I want to go. Jack thinks we were there in 2014 but he’s confused it with Port Protection, which is several miles south. Both tiny off grid communities are at the very tip of Prince of Whales above the 56th parallel.

All of Point Baker's government and commercial float.
All of Point Baker’s government and commercial float.

Point Baker will be our northernmost stop. Founded in the 1930s, it has about 35 residents on boat and in houses clustered around a tiny bay. At one end of a long float are the public buildings – post office, community center with library, and fire hall. At the other, the businesses – fuel dock, grocery, bar, laundry and showers – apparently all operated by one family. Up on the hill there’s a communication tower that doesn’t include cell service and a shiny new cluster of lights like you might see around a fancy tennis court. I discover it’s a new tank farm adequate to meet the fuel needs of the gill net and troll fleets. Less than two miles away, in a slightly larger bay is Port Protection, population 63, which offers a similar mix of services.

I go chat with a pair of fisherman, shuttles in hand, who roll their gillnet off the drum to check and repair it. There’s a good rhythm to the work of this father and son as they prepare for this week’s Sunday noon to Thursday noon salmon opening. The knife clenched in his teeth does not deter the father from conversation. They’re out of Wrangell.

A cruise ship, too big for anywhere on POW, is glimpsed through the narrow entrance to Point Baker.
A cruise ship, too big for anywhere on POW, is glimpsed through the narrow entrance to Point Baker.

The net is 24 feet wide and 3/8 of a mile long. It’s a five and one quarter inch net – that’s the distance between knots on opposite side of each individual “net square” when pulled away from each other. There’re aren’t a lot of tears in the net itself because the float tine at the top and the leaded line at the bottom are bound to the net with the lighter thread on the shuttles. Consider it sacrificial: if something big like a shark gets caught in the net, the thread breaks not the net and the shark leaves. They are fishing sockeye and hopefully kings. Last year their best haul netted $3200. Yes, cloudy days are better; when it’s sunny the fish go deeper.

A pretty girl arrives, fresh laundry in hand. She’s the son’s partner, the third fisherman on a pair of 32 foot boats fishing together.

So, I ask, what are rec boats supposed to do when we see a working gill netter? The tiny red buoy that marks the end of the net looks just like what crabbers deploy over their traps. New rule of thumb: Head toward the boat itself. These guys watch for boats, using radar in the fog. You can call them or they will call you.

Point Baker’s float plane dock is extra large because it doubles as a helipad, the communities emergency evacuation point. Unattended boats don’t tie upthere but on a calm sunny day in fishing season this large float makes the perfect net loft.

Monday 20 June – Devilfish Bay 56º05’N 133º22.5’W

This is most varied passage of the trip is from Devilfish Bay.  A garland of splashing Dall’s porpoises crosses our bow as we make a pre-dawn departure from Point Baker.  Heading west we round Port Protection at the tip of  Prince of Wales. Sumner Strait is full of whales.  The rock outcroppings of nearby peaks rise  above the clouds.  Isolated sea otters enjoying the ocean swells give way to larger groups as we  enter Shakan Bay.  Near the mouth of Dry Passage, I spot what looks like a tidewater glacier but cannot be.  It turns out to be the marble mine, newly reactivated if mining mostly marble dust.   I’m at the helm as we wiggle through Dry Passage.   Jack has his iPad open to Navionics and  all we have to do is get the countless red and green aides to navigation in the correct order. We’re just coming off a low tide.  Next is El Capitan, narrow with peaks all around.

When the waters open up again we see an UnCruise boat at anchor.  The Wilderness Discoverer takes only 76 passengers and it would seem a kayak, SUP, skiff or inflatable for each one.  Then again, they are too big to get into where we have come from.

A fleet of tiny boats allow passengers to explore some of the narrow passages we've just exited.
A large fleet of tiny boats allows passengers of this mother ship  entry to the narrow passages S/V Aurora has just exited. 

Tuesday 21 June Kaluk Cove 55º44’N 133º17.5’W

Such a choice of beautiful coves off Sea Otter Sound!
The choice of beautiful coves off Sea Otter Sound is difficult. We’re alone in Kuluk Cove as we are everywhere else.

Day starts with windlass problem. But I’ve got a strong back that I take good care of and the ergonomics of the manual raising are okay. Later it dawns on us that I am the culprit. Jack had suggested that the new inverter should be mounted on the wall of locker in the aft stateroom. The mounting brackets allow air to pass around it. To find a suitable place for it I pick it up only to see a flicker. One the red plastic screw on the back is loose and the copper ring collides with the one on the black screws, causing the short. The new inverter is dead.

We have our pick of pretty coves off Sea Otter Sound and choose Kaluk, which is perfect.

Wednesday 22 June – Klawock 55º33.4’N 133º05.9′ W

From the Tlingit village of Kwalock, a diversity of poles look out over the water.
The hill above the barber in the Tlingit village of Kwalock has a fascinating variety of poles.

To raise the anchor without the windlass we run a line from a winch in the cockpit and snapshackle it to a link of the chain.   Soon the chain is up on deck and even easier than usually to flake in the chain locker.  We embark on another day of whales and sea otters.

Have you ever seen anything like this pair of common murres, the eggs with their future progeny floating to the ground?
Below this pair of common murres, eggs with their future progeny float to the ground.

Perhaps the excitement of it all has left us tired. When we enter the protected bay at Klawock on a lowish tide, we’re not sure how to get to the public docks. So we tie up in an empty space at the Tribal docks next to the cannery.

I call on the good ladies inside who are cooking lunch for their members and organizing the food bank. They say, no, the boat in the place where you are will be back later today. But there should certainly be space at the public harbour.

Is this a Tlingit Guy Fawkes?
Is this a Tlingit Guy Fawkes?

There is indeed. After not getting the Harbour Master on VHF we tie up at an empty space. Nice view of Klawock’s deservedly famous totem park. A fisherman says call Rose and gives me her cell phone. Find this strong little wisp of a woman near on the street. She’s ben Harbour Master for 17 years. Part time no benefits. Her house is across the street. I pay moorage in cash – 11.45 for boats of any size – and thank her for the well designed and maintained restrooms and showers on the ground floor of her office perch with view of ships coming and going.

This large Tlingit village – population 850 – seems like a good place to moor a boat to winter over.  While hardly in the thick of things, Kwalock has a real airport and a harbor that charges an annual moorage rather of only $11 a foot!  Look up from your boat and there is Kwalock’s renowned totem park.

Thursday 23 June – Craig 55º28.6’N 133º08.6’W

We’re in AT&T land so Jack is on the phone with Michele in Craig, a town that captivated us on our last visit. She has a place for us. Jack writes down where it is- behind a blue hulled trawler. After stopping for fuel at Craig’s fuel dock – a first class docking adventure facilitated by young strong life-vest-clad attendants – we slip past the fish packing packing plant and into North Harbor. Narrowness, rocks, traffic, current, you name it. Man, I can’t find that trawler. There’s a blue hull but it’s a troll rig! We go on almost dead ending into shoe and there’s a space. It’s behind a recreational boat resembling a fishing trawler and style recognized as such.

Jack tight turns into the dock for his usual flawless landing for a starboard tie. But something is off. I get down on the stern rail to fend off the trawler, whose crew appears to help. Easy landing, but this is the first sign transmission is awry.

Trawler crew – sixty something Jack and Jills from Washington State are nice. They’re in Alaska for the summer. Going to Kasaan for the September 3 Whale House rededication. A daughter has become Alaskan. They’ve been coming for years. Man says, “It’s addictive.”

When I go to pay moorage, Michelle and I laugh about the “troller” and “trawler” confusion – the two fishing boat styles sound almost the same. From the emergency preparation handouts on her desk, I discover she’s a community activist. Completely attuned to infrastructure vulnerabilities and the need for politically powered community resilience.

Craig docks are wonderful, even better if you’re tied near the ramp to the street and can follow all the comings and goings of the whole community. The last time we were here it was the Fourth of July, Three years olds casting baited hooks in the fish derby; older kids in the log rolling competition. Tradition. Alaska style chaos.

Just across from us is Mixie, crewed by aging commercial fishermen Charlie and Lee. She’s from Craig. They troll in the summer and retire in the winter. And like Greg and Cheryl in Thorne Bay, they built their boat themselves and sailed up from Port Townsend! I learn it’s a Hoquiam hull, distinctively curved, and that there are four similar boat at Craig, including one built by their son.

Mixie has a distinctive Hoquiam hull as does the boat next to it. It was built by Lee and Charlie, Alaska commercial fishermen who spend their off season in Port Townsend.
Mixie has a distinctive Hoquiam hull as does the boat next to it. It was built by Lee and Charlie, Alaska commercial fishermen who spend their off season in Port Townsend.

At Napa store we ask Mike who might be able to answer some of our questions about our inverter. He says find Dave. Retired Master electrician who lives on a sailboat near yours. We find him and sure, he’ll take a look. Climbs around following wires, talking to himself. “What is that I wonder? All right. It’s right there. Okay. Al righty.” There must be a breaker

Like most single handed liveaboards, Dave’s a talker. He worked all over Alaska, turned to alcohol, as many do, lost his family, heard God, embraced an orthodox Catholicism. I find him better informed about Church history and politics than anyone I’ve talked to in a long time. Today his technical smarts make Dave a local legend. Slowly he’s getting back close to his kids.

Wrong headed morning!   
Tired. Spooked. Not ready.
Narrows called Tlevak. 

I recuse myself. 
Jack calculates, navigates.
Gets it right.  Dead on.

Monday 27 June Hydaburg 55º10.1’N 133º41.7’W

Hydaburg
The largest Haida village in the United States, Hydaburg is home to one of three large totem parks on Prince of Wales.

Hydaburg is the largest Haida settlement in the United States. We’re the only visiting boat at the spacious and largely empty so everyone knows who we are.   A few people greet us.  Lisa, Chair of the Native Corporation, does so in Haida.  She lets us struggle with a few words before filling us in in English.  Hydaburg’s  big, two-day Fourth of July celebration is coming up and then at the end of July there is culture camp, a week of workshops in traditional skills, arts, and music as well as language classes.

RedCedarBark
Someone has been collecting red cedar bark, perhaps for the hat and basket weaving workshops during the annual cultural celebration in July.

The houses are modest ranch-style while the school, the health clinic and city hall are stately and well-designed, which seems appropriate for a people of a round shared culture.  The foundation for new longhouse is being built and carvers in the shed are working on the poles. There’s a tiny Alaska Commercial Company store and emergency medical services and a small fleet of three village busses to take people around the island via a road that is slowly being paved.

Hydaburg is the largest Haida settlement in the United States but residents are separated from their Canadian cousins by customs requirement that make the journey between the communities onerous.  Like us, they must enter Canada at Prince Rupert rather than going directly to Haida Gawaii.  And returning from there, they must pass US Customs at Ketchikan.  This is surprising given the special status of Native Communities in both countries.

The weather for crossing back south looks good for the end of the week.  So we leave, curious to come back.

Water’s lavender   
Blues, silvers, sun mirrors mix
Surfaces deceive. 

Wed 29 June – Nichols Bay 54º43’N 132º08’W

Nichols Bay is at the very south tip of Prince of Wales, reached though many hours of wilderness. Forgotten by all save a few commercial fishermen, it lies a couple of miles from the Canadian border. We snug into a little nook off the first bay and turn in early as we have long day ahead.

Thurs 30 June – Prince Rupert 

In the predawn darkness of Nichols Bay, some seaweed “floating” off our stern turns into rocky bumps as the tide ebbs out. We bump into the uncharted drying peaks as we exit but gradually find our way out into the light of early morning.

We sail from the cape
And a flat line of horizon 
Closes around us.

Silky silver sea
Your billowing swells push us.
Where we need to go.

Humpbacks spout, cross bow  
Just as sun burns hole through clouds 
Giving whales haloes.  

Bull kelp grows longer
By a foot each shorter day!
Guiding us past shoals.

The Gnarled Islands   
Misted monochrome west 
Depth, color to east.  

Green Island, the northernmost of Canada's manned lighthouses, welcomes us back south.
Green Island, the northernmost of Canada’s manned lighthouses, welcomes us back south.

After passing customs in Prince Rupert we discover the Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club has a space, albeit it a port tie. Jack attempts a bow out-stern in but the transmission is suddenly funny and the current strong. So we give up on that. As I scramble to move fenders and lines to the port side, the usual helpful and competent contingent appears on the docks and helps us in. We sleep soundly leaving boat issues for the morning.

Things You Cannot Find on a Nautical Chart

This is partly a review but the list is getting longer.

Vessels. These may be moving or stationery. The only vessels charted are shipwrecks. One of those little shipwreck symbols can instantly de-euphorize any great passage. By the way, did you know this?   If you drop an anchor on a steel shipwreck, “galvanic action can strip the zinc off the anchor chain in a matter of days!” (Thank you, Nigel Calder)

Marine mammals. It took us an afternoon of terror in Fitz Hugh Sound to figure this one out. Sure we were very tired from our first rounding Cape Caution and the surf had come up and froth was sloshing up against every little rocky island. Still, the effort we put into searching our charts for all those frothing rocks around us! Then, ah ha! Whales! Eventually we figured out “How to Tell a Rock from Large Mammal.”

Yes, we're going to hit that fog bank.
Yes, we’re going to hit that fog bank.

Fog banks. These sneak up in magical ways. Sometimes you can see them coming toward you, sometimes they descend from the blue heavens, sometimes you have to bang right into one to avoid banging into something harder. When you hit one, your eyes hurt. In the blinding light you gradually go blind. Then your mind, rather than your eyesight, takes over and starts telling you what you are seeing. Phantoms, dangerous and disorienting.

The two guys standing in the 12 foot boat. It’s not the vessel that counts here. The boat has less footage than the guys plus no radar, AIS, fog siren canister. Until this year, our worst day of fog was July 23, 2011.  It was the opening Sunday of salmon season between Port Renfrew and Sooke on the SW coast of Vancouver Island. Ten miles offshore hundreds of little boats heavy with humans, joy and anticipation. I stood in the bow, listened for voices and told Jack when to jog to port or starboard.

Aids to Navigation. Specifically the buoys, lights, reds and greens added since publication of the chart. Or since the release of electronic substitutes with data misappropriated from said chart. Like 16A in Wrangell Narrows. Which southbound you can mistake for 16, northbound for 18. Either way, the consequences are not pretty.

Hardscape. Scan any cruising guide for the term “uncharted rocks.” See?

Icebergs. The summer of 2014 followed a dry, moderate winter. We cruised among green peaks that other years had remained white and through clear waters that we’d expected to be clouded with silt and sprinkled with bergie bits. No reason to be on the look out. And yet there they were, proud survivors of glacial calving, the largest with a waterline diameter of several times our boat length.

Mirages. “See those two islands in the middle of the channel?” Everyone does. They’re far enough distant to still appear blue grey, their steep cliffs astonishing. And yet as we continue through Stephens Passage past Holkham Bay, they’re gone. Several weeks later later we decipher the deception with the help of Kevin Moran’s Local Knowledge. When the very cool air spilling down from the glaciers through Holkham Bay meets meets the warmer air in the channel  it may produces a mirage in which distances appear shortened and low lying islands “smear” vertically.

The direction you are headed. When you’re reading a chart in the library, you’re going nowhere. Maybe I’m just being cranky. But consider the on-board alternatives. Are they any more mindful, despite being in-the-moment?  The chart plotter says you are going toward the top of the chart plotter and gives you a heading based on the Magnetic Pole.   The radar screen tells you you are moving up a straight line in the middle of a bunch of concentric circles and gives you a True heading, which in the Inside Passage is off what your compass says by anywhere from 15 to 20 degrees. One plus for charts: east, west, north, south seem to be where they should be.

Log: The Embrace of the Wilds, the Sweetness of Towns

An uncharted island of ancient ice in Stephens Passage.

We’ve been moving between bergs and burgs. You never leave the wilderness here in Southeast Alaska, even when you finally see other boats or get cell service,  If anything, you grasp the of the wild when you tie up somewhere and talk to folks who have carved  out a life within it.

In the rest of the Pacific Northwest, we talk about resilience.  Here that’s a fundamental given; the skills you need are for subsistence.

Another of my misconceptions fell and broke just this morning.  I’d been under the impression that the subsistence lifestyle was that of Alaskan Natives, the folks here from American pre-history, many of whom self describe as Indians. But it’s far broader.  Any rural Alaskan has access to fish stocks and game populations “customarily and traditionally” used for subsistence.  Take pukka Petersburg, founded in 1896 by a handful of Norwegian pioneers led by Peter Buschmann, who emigrated to Port Townsend and headed north. Norwegian flags still fly here.  Employment is mostly commercial fishing and federal, state and local government jobs.  But with only 3000 people and no road connections to any other place, Petersburg is one of the subsistence communities we’ve visited: people proud of their ability to live off the land and sea. (More on legal aspects of Alaskan subsistence here and  here.)

Sunday, June 15. Appelton Cove, Rodman Bay, Peril Strait. 57º28’N 135º15.7’W  We leave Kake at 5:15 am in anticipation of Frederick Sound and Chatham Strait. Isn’t this supposed to be all about strong winds? Not for us. Strong seas for sure, especially where the two large bodies of water meet at Point Gardner, the south tip of Admiralty Island. We rock and roll, taking it wide, too far off shore to see the sea lion rookery on the island just south of the point. We give Baranof Warm Springs – and the promise of a warm soak – a miss and continue up the Strait.  In time, the sun burns off the mist on the Baranof peaks, improving the scenery but dampening chances of a breeze and making us feel sleepy.

An eventful day ends with a 10:16 pm sunset on Peril Strait.
Sunset after 10 pm ends eventful day on Peril Strait.

But then comes the narrow Peril Strait that separates Baranof and Chicagof Islands and a swimming mammal show that doesn’t quit. First we pass a pod of orcas on port, right where they were when we went by two years ago! We give them some distance only to see a group of spouting humpbacks on starboard! There are six of them and they are bubble feeding as they move into the strait. We make sandwiches and enjoy an hour-and-a-half lunch together, humans and humpbacks all moving along at a lazy 3.7 knots. With remarkable regularity, every 4 to 6 minutes, they perform a 60 or 90 second show. There’s spray, a ruckus of glistening grey backs, splashing and churning as they sound, their marvelous flukes in the air.

In the course of our transit of Peril Strait a pair of frolicking sea otters swim past, harbor seals play the shallows, a solitary sea lion powers through the current looking a bit like a bear and three large mother deer who, at the narrowest part of the strait, walk into the water to cross. And then the sudden sound, a snort, a nasal rush of air. Midships starboard. I rush forward to see the first one announce its presence. Suddenly there are five synchronized swimmers diving into our bow waves. A celebration of explosive joy. In a minute or so, they are off. What are they? Pacific wide-sided dolphins with short attention spans? Or the larger, more powerful Dall’s porpoises, also at home in these waters? A cameo performance but I can’t identify the actor. (Note to self: To learn to discriminate among waterborne choreographies, try YouTube. Oh, and get some video from our lunch with the whales up soon.)

Crew says farewell to Sitka and photographer Gus.
Crew says farewell to Sitka and photographer Gus.

Monday, June 16. Sitka.  57º03’N 135.21’W There’s too much to say about Sitka.  Above what I’ve said before here and here and here. This is largely thanks to Cruz’s old friend Gus and our new friend Sara and stepping into the world of normal/exotic Alaskans.

So I won’t say anything except that after a Sitkan had asked where we were from, I commented that their town was “the second best on the Inside Passage”, only to be corrected. “But we’re on the Outside.” Yes, remote, far away, outlying, off any track, beaten or otherwise. Peripheral, almost extraterrestrial in sense that Sitkans are half oceanic.

Sunday, June 22 Appleton Cove, Rodman Bay, Peril Strait. 57º28’N 135º15.7’W  One amazing sail across Hoonah Sound. Gusts to 25 knots and the rail practically in the water. Rough, invigorating. But then we lose sight of a sailboat we’d seen dangerously over powered. We search with the binocs. Then in the distance along the far shore, we spot the little boat (maybe 25 feet?), bare poles now. An hour later, Canadian flag flapping, it passes us! Is this some magical back eddy? Is that outboard supplementing a diesel engine? What about hull speed?

The next morning, we raise anchor before 5am and see the sail covers on the little vessel, its dinghy drawn abeam covering half the length of the hull, its astute crew sleeping off their adventure. We look for the but do not see them again.

Tenekee Springs, population 98.
Tenekee Springs, population 98.

Monday, June 23 Tenakee Springs. 57º46.69’N 135º12.22′ Travel took us east out Peril Strait to Chatham. then north, then west 9 miles to Tenekee Springs, population 98. The tiny city is stretched out along the shore on either side of the mid-town: the dock, the float plane landing, the store, the bakery, a cafe, and the bath. There’s no natural harbor here, just nice wide floats behind a couple of floating breakwaters. You write your boat’s name on a used envelop crossing out the previous name, leave some money and write yourself a receipt. It’s a rather expensive for Alaska $0.60 a foot. We forego electricity, which costs another $20 because Tenakee has to make all their own, currently by diesel generator although they are going to supplement with micro hydro. Other infrastructure: a combined city hall and library, a fire station and a school, which closed last year when a family decided to home school but which will open in September as there are again enough kids. The bakery serves breakfast 9 to 2. The Blue Moon café serves food “when Rosie feels like cooking”, according to an old Southeast guidebook and “on several hours notice,” according to Rosie, a fixture here for 58 years.

At the library, I join another reader, settling in with an intriguing mid-century biography of La Pérouse and a collection of essays on Alaska by Alaskans, designed to counter dubiously informed views such as mine. “Two readers of real books!” exclaims the librarian, most of whose other interactions are chat about the latest films on DVD. I’m actually there to learn about this strange, endearing town, so she gives me a fat three ring binder with several years copies of The Store Door. Issued by the Tenakee Historical Society, it includes obituaries, historic photos, excerpts from old newspapers and current projects, the most ambitious of which is the recent renovation of the bathhouse.

Tenakee Springs' only public toilet.
Tenakee Springs’ only public toilet.

Tenekee sprouted up in the 1870s or 80s, balm for discouraged Gold Rushers. Seems today it provides respite for Juneau folks weary of cruise ships, part-timers though with admirable kitchen gardens. The ferry calls twice a week, going to and coming from Juneau. Passengers only; Tenekee is carless.

Some of the year rounders, like the librarian, live “off grid”, that is a mile or so by skiff beyond either end of the path. Everyone is high on the place. It seems to have just the right diversity of age and Native blood and, like Meyers Chuck, a balance of tiny and not so tiny houses. Gentrification-immune, it has the usual amount of surplus stuff, charmingly overgrown with salmonberry bushes and cow parsnip.  An outhouse on a dock above the beach behind the fire station is its only public toilet.

After supper, I hear snorting and take my book up to the deck. A humpback is swimming in the opening between the breakwaters.  No wonder, herring are jumping out of the water all around the boat.  I wait to see if the beast will come into the harbor but with bounty everywhere, there is no need. I watch him  blow through the former-nose-evolved-to-the-top-of-the-head until the light dies and I turn in, closing the hatch to block out the snorts.

Wednesday, June 25 Funter Bay, Admiralty Island. 58º14.6’N 134º52.9’W A rare perfect wind took us up and across Chatham Strait on a broad reach. Lines taken by Bea, half of the crew of Salty, a tiny, well-used, outboard from Juneau that was drying out after a wake wave had drenched sleeping bags and everything else in the boat the night before. She’s Asian, Brian a blue-eyed blond, celebrating 20 years together. When I awoke from an I was sad to see this welcoming, upbeat couple had pulled out, presumably to drop the hook in some romantic anchorage known only to them.

Funter Bay has a nice 150′ government float, though a bit too shallow on the shore side to get out on the next morning’s spring low. So we switched sides and took Salty’s place behind two larger boats. A Juneau banker – and climate change denier – remarked nostalgically that back when the state floats were built, they’d accommodate far more boats. 21′ footer s like Salty being more the rule.

June 28, 2014
Auke Bay has splendid views of the Juneau ice field.

Thursday, June 26. Juneau 58º18’N 134º25.7′ An early morning departure takes us up Chatham into Lynn Canal. The Fairweather, the catamaran ferry that links Juneau to Sitka, As we turn into Auke Bay, as we turn into Auke Bay. For once we run into it in ample waters, although we’re so taken with the hanging glaciers we hardly notice. Since the day is still early, we decide to go around Douglas Island and up Gastineau to Juneau rather than tie up with the big boats at Auke Bay. It’s a quick decision we will later reevaluate.

The route along Douglas is long and Gastineau seems endless. The weather’s been hot and the seas calm so there’s no excuse for impatience. It’s just that 11 hour days are tiring. In fact, it’s almost worse without the adrenalin of facing continual challenges or simple driving rain that calls for hourly soup, ginger tea or hot chocolate. You find yourself complaining, like a spoiled child.

We’re barely by the cruise ships, when Jack hails the harbor master and Cruz and I get the fenders and lines ready. Remembering the strong currents we encountered entering the Harris docks four years ago, I note it’s slack and ought to be okay. We pass smoothly under the bridge that links Juneau to Douglas, but what’s that scraping sound? Yikes. It’s a high slack and this is Alaska! We tie up and assess the damage. Gratitude that it’s minor mixes with alarm at my/our, well, mindfulnesslessness and I start to cry like a child.

Thanks, Cruz, for going up there to fix that.
Thanks, Cruz, for going up there to fix that.

Within minutes, Cruz has rigged the bosun’s chair and we hoist him up the mast using our two spare halyards. (The tallest mast north of the bridge, we now note.) He bends the wind vane so it rotates again but has to remove the 10 inch cylinder that contains the white anchor light and the tricolor for sailing nights off shore. The plastic attachment ring has snapped, sacrificially. A sailor from Bellingham comes from across the docks to send up the tools we lack. We let Cruz down, he spends the rest of the afternoon fashioning a fix with epoxy, and – after a night on the town – goes up the next day to put the light in place.

By then I’m off hiking. I arrive at Mendenhall Glacier on the first bus, determined to get a good leg stretch. A girl in a National Forest Service uniform gives me a photocopied trail map and I’m off. The 3.5 mile circle route is lovely I pass only four people: a young Tlingit couple and an Alaskan grandmother pointing out her grandchild how far the glacier has receded. I’ve add another two or three miles by branching off on the Nugget Creek Trail, where I find myself crawling across fallen trees. When the trail meets a lake above the waterfall and I’m even farther away from vistas above the tree line so I retrace my steps, figuring the NSF greeter must be a summer intern.

Selfie with falls and glacier

Later, a mature ranger says, “Nah, nobody much does the Nugget Creek Trail. Brown bear up there.” As for the the loop trail, it’s designed to be short enough for cruise ship visitors. I mention I didn’t see a single one “They just get overwhelmed.” Yeah, I get that. And down near the lake, I see a lot of strollers and hear a lot of Japanese and Hindi. But a couple or three miles of wheelchair able trails that make a 13-mile blue glacier accessible to everyone? You can’t knock that.

The Mendenhall is special and everyone should visit. And it’s especially special to the residents of Juneau, despite a their abundance of outdoor options. How good to see bathing-suited families lying on the beach, kids building glacial silt castles, toddlers splashing around in water liberated after thousand of years in the ice field. I want to return to Juneau in the winter and join these folks in their little sliver of daylight to drive along a city street to the lake to walk or skate among the blue bergs to look the glacier right in its towering face.

Saturday, June 28. Snug Cove on bay behind Gambier Island off Admiralty Island. 57º25’N 133º58’W.

The scenery along Stephens Passage south of Juneau is overwhelming.  This is the Alaska of the State Ferry  and the big cruise ships if the weather is perfect, with just a few clouds for effect.  As I sit on the spinnaker box, leaning on the mast, wandering, wondering musings take over.  This  is no time to write.

We puzzle about a couple of large islands in the middle of the passage that are not on the chart.  They turn out to be ice bergs, better known as “bergie bits” since they’ve calved from glaciers.   They are not at all bitty but big.  The one in the photo has about fifty Glaucous Gulls on it and they are big birds – over two feet from head to tail.

Southeast Alaska's symphony of blues.
Southeast Alaska’s symphony of blues along Stephens Passage.

Our attention turns to navigation as we approach Snug Cove, a little nook on a bay in Admiralty Island behind Gambier Island and a string of reefs.  It’s a  wonderful place with good mud holding the anchor. Real wilderness. A day from Juneau and a day from Petersburg, with nothing but wildlife in between. Would like to spend a week here sometime.

Early morning departure from Snug Cove on Admiralty Island.
Early morning departure from Snug Cove on Admiralty Island.

Sunday, June 29 Petersburg. 56º48.8W 132º57.6’W. Yet another 11 hour day motoring on flat seas, though broken by encounters with humpbacks.  By now, the Captain knows he can push the crew so rather than drop the hook and laze around Portage Bay, we press on through Frederick Sound until dropping south into Wrangell Narrows.  We call the harbor master as we wind thought the northernmost aids to navigation, including red 63, a sea lion bunk bed buoy.

It’s barely and hour after high slack so Peterburg’s legendary currents should be relaxed.  (The last time we were here the stream has slammed the Alaska State ferry into its own dock, disabling it; other errant ice bergs have ripped through pylons)

Sea lions bunk bed  buoy.
Sea lions bunk bed buoy.

At that moment it begins to pour. Straight down hard.  We head into our slip and find the opposite half empty.  A blessing as the current pushes us to the wrong side.  No problem, Aurora’s worn teak rub rails are in the right place for the new docks.   We back out and try again, succeeding with the help of extra hands which suddenly appear on the finger to catch our bowline.   When I go to register, and express my surprise at the current, the harbor master explains that all the rain rushing into Hammer Creek suddenly flows into the harbor.  A large power cruiser with bow thrusters doesn’t even try to come in, but spend the night outside on the end float.

Nonetheless, the new docks at Petersburg are generously designed with lots of space.  Broad tenders share space with slender wooden schooners.  Lighting, fire hose connections, electrical outlets are state of the art.  At night the place looks more like my idea of Saint Tropez than the rough and tumble fishing port that it is.

Doesn't Petersburg look posh with its new docks?
Doesn’t Petersburg look posh with its new docks?

 Tuesday, July 1.  Wrangell   56º27.8′N 132.22.9′W   We had a civilized morning today waiting for slack before navigating the 70 or so aids to navigation that guide us through the Wrangell Narrows.   It’s low tide, in fact a negative tide.  The crab pots are sitting on the mud next to their buoys.

At last we emerge into the open waters of Sumner Strait and the peaks of that tower over the Stikine River Valley come into view.  The Stikine ice field, which is shared with Canada, has the southern most tidewater glaciers and is even larger than the Juneau ice field (which is the size of Rhode Island.)

The Wrangell docks finally have some rec boats in addition to transient fishing boats of all kinds.  This week there are openings for seiners, gill netters and crabbers and the ubiquitous trollers seem to fish all the time.  There’s no room for us near town so we tie up across the way.

Wrangell has the best laundromat in Southeast, it’s open until 9 pm and I’ve got three weeks worth of dirty clothes and linens.  I get on my bike and ride past houses festooned with bunting and  bows for the Fourth of July.  I mentioned, didn’t I, that Wrangell claims to have the best celebration.  Wish we didn’t have to move on, but we’ve miles to go.

 

Salmon in the Trees

How’s that?   Actually, I get it now.

Fishing Tongass Forest Salmon

Salmon in the Trees is the title of Amy Gulik’s recent collection of photos and essays by Alaskan environmentalists, which draw on the genetic science of the temperate rain forest. The name was borrowed for the art installation we experienced on our way to a noon chamber music concert deep in the woods near Sitka; hanging in the trees were yard long salmon interpreted by local artisans, native grandmothers, and child artists. And it was David Suzuki who helped me unpack this concept one lazy afternoon as I sat on the deck reading his Autobiography.

“Science,” he says, helps us “tease out nature’s secrets.”   Awed by its intricate, complex interconnectedness, we start to understand the folly of “managing” the environment.

Temperate rainforest supports far more biomass than any ecosystem on earth. Ours extends from Northern California to Alaska in a narrow band between the Pacific Ocean and the coastal mountains. Prodigious rainfall on the great trees carries nutrients away from the forest floor. How then does the forest continue to support huge red and yellow cedar, Sitka spruce, and Douglas fir once the nutrients are swept into the sea?

Summer reading included David Suzuki’s Autobiography.

Suzuki explains.  “Terrestrial nitrogen is almost exclusively 14N, the normal isotope of nitrogen; in the oceans there is a significant amount of 15N, a heavier isotope that can be distinguished from 14N.” The temperate rainforest is laced with thousands of rivers and streams and if the forest is clear cut, salmon die off. The shade of the canopy keeps water cool, tree roots keep soil from washing into spawning grounds, and forest creatures nourish young salmon as they make their way to the ocean. So salmon need the trees. And the trees need the salmon.

“Along the coast,” writes the Canadian environmentalist, “The salmon go to sea by the billions. Over time, they grow as they incorporate 15N into all their tissues. By the time they return to their native streams, they are like packages of nitrogen fertilizer marked by 15N. Upon their return to spawn, killer whales, and seals intercept them in the estuaries, and eagles, bears, and wolves along with dozens of other species, feed on salmon eggs and on live and dead salmon in the rivers. Birds and mammals load up on 15N and, as they move through the first, defecate nitrogen rich feces throughout the ecosystem…A single bear may take from six hundred to seven hundred salmon. After a bear abandons a partially eaten salmon, ravens, salamanders, beetles, and other creatures consume the remnants.”

Researchers at the University of Victoria have demonstrated this redistribution of nitrogen: years when there are large salmon runs produce wide growth bands in trees and increased amounts of 15N contained in them. Salmon hold everything together.

“Our fragmented human efforts at environmental protection pale in comparison. They do not respect interdependence.” Referring to his native British Columbia, Suzuki explains why.   “The whales, gales, bears, and wolves come under the jurisdiction of the ministry of the environment, and the trees are overseen by the ministry of forests. The mountains and rocks are the responsibility of the minister of mining, and the rivers may be administered by the minister of energy (for hydroelectric power) or the minister of agriculture (for irrigation).”

And the salmon? They come under the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for commercial fishing, under another department for the First Nations’ food fishery and under the tourism ministry for sports fishermen.

In 1992, years before all this was well understood, the co-founders of the fledgling David Suzuki Foundation went to Earth Summit at Rio with this Declaration. It captures my evolving awareness.

Declaration of Interdependence

THIS WE KNOW

We are the earth, through the plants and animals that nourish us. We are the rains and the oceans that flow through our veins. We are the breath of the forests and the land and the plants of the sea. We are human animals, related to all other life as descendants of the firstborn cell. We share with these kin a common history, written in our genes. We share a common present, filled with uncertainy. And we share a common future as yet untold.

We humans are but one of thirty million species weaving the thin layer of life enveloping the world. The stability of communities of living things depends on this diversity. Linked in that web, we are interconnected–using, cleansing, sharing and replenishing the fundamental elements of life. Our home, planet Earth, is finite; all life shares its resources and the energy from the Sun, and therefore has limits to growth.  For the first time we have passed those limits.  When we compromise the air, the water, the soil, and the variety of life,  we steal from the endless future to serve the fleeting present.

 THIS WE BELIEVE

Humans have become so numerous and our tools so powerful that we have driven fellow creatures into extinction, damed the great rivers,torn down ancient forests, poisoned the earth, rain and wind, and ripped holes in the sky. Our science has brought pain as well as joy; our comfort is paid for by the suffering of millions.  We are learning from our mistakes, we are mourning our vanished kin, and we now build a new politics of hope. We respect and uphold the absolute need for clean, air, water, and soil.  We see that economic activities that benefit the few while shrinking the inheritance of many are wrong.  And since environmental degradation erodes biological capital forever, full ecological and social cost must enter all equations of development.   We are one brief generation in the long march of time; the future is not ours to erase. So where knowledge is limited, we will still remember  all those who will walk after us, and err on the side of caution.

THIS WE RESOLVE

All this that we know and believe must now forever become the foundation of the way we live. At this Turning Point in our relationship with the Earth, we work for an evolution from dominance to partnership, from fragmentation to connection, from insecurity to interdependence.